Recently I started reading through the Bible again. Like most Christians, I undertake this spiritual practice from time to time. Starting in Genesis and plowing through to the last “amen” in Revelation gives me a fresh perspective on the vastness of God’s salvation plan and the sheer awe-inspiring depth and breadth of the Scriptures. I also get some fresh texts for future sermons. If I can get through Deuteronomy I usually do all right, but Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy can test the best of intentions.
On this day, I was fresh into my familiar journey when I read again the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 6.
All of us remember the story. The peoples of the world came together to build a tower that would reach to heaven. God saw the construction and the pride that prompted the planning and as a result, God destroyed the towers and scattered the people throughout the world by confusing their languages. As I read the story, other things I had been reading and hearing kept coming to mind. I remember reading about group of physicists and philosophers discussing recent discoveries in astronomy and how these events would change our understanding of our world and ourselves. I remembered an article about geneticists who were going over the implications of the recently published human genome.
I thought about how politicians and other expert watchers of the political landscape began to discuss the meaning of the fracturing of America into sub-groups. We once were a nation where everyone wanted to fit in. Now, we are nation where everyone wants to stand out and express their unique identities in the languages and customs of their sub-groups, refusing to be absorbed into the great melting pot of our society. Add to that the very real segregation of our world into urban/suburban/rural, of the economic have/have-nots, the technological have/have-nots – each with own language and culture – and we can begin to understand why communication, or rather miscommunication, is such an issue for our time.
Then it hit me. The story of Babel isn’t about a bunch of people who lived a long time ago. Babel is the story of the place where I live and work. Like many others, I am trying to do church in Babel – a place where all of the foundations are gone and no one can talk to each other.
When I began my ministry over twenty years ago, there was a basic list of primary assumptions in the communities where I served. People generally agreed there was a God, He created the world, and He had standards for us to live by. Even the town drunk would confess to “believin’ in Jesus.” You could begin any discussion on right and wrong with the phrase made famous by Billy Graham, “The Bible says.” Now, Christians have to be able to build a philosophical case for Christianity before we begin to build a theological case for Jesus. Our culture has no overriding concept of truth, right, wrong, good, evil or any of the other concepts you would think reasonable people would have to agree on for civilized society to be, well, civilized. In the words of Judges, everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes. People may come to see things from your point of view, but they will not recognize any authority outside of themselves. Truth is negotiable and personal.
So, as church leaders, we are left with this question: “How do you do church in Babel?” The first part of the answer to this question is to realize that, wherever your church is, you are on a mission field. The mission field of any American church is every bit as pagan and confused as any missionary would see in any part of the world. In fact, doing mission and ministry work in post-modern American may be actually harder because the Christian message has been heard so often no one listens anymore.
Because our culture is so reluctant to listen to the gospel message, we, as believers, must start every conversation with our culture by listening to them. Our culture, through the arts, is asking the same questions the crowds once asked Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “How many times do I need to forgive?” In different words, and certainly with a different beat, our neighbors are asking these same questions. Listen to the music, watch the movies, – we must study and know our culture the same way any missionary would if they were trying to proclaim the message of Christ for the first time.
One of my impatient friends came to me and asked, “OK, Mike, what is the bottom line of the Passion movie? After all of the hype and discussion, what is the real “take away” from this movie?” I answered, “The story of Jesus is still the most fascinating story ever told.” This is a key fact for the church in post-modern America. People, even unbelievers, are fascinated with the story of Jesus. So, we have the opportunity, in fresh ways, to tell the same story we have been telling for over 2,000 years – the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Most everyone agrees Jesus lived in the Judean countryside of the Roman Empire. Most everyone agrees that either Jesus or His teachings were used as the foundation of Christianity. Yet, other than seeing His face on Christmas cards, most Americans do not know anything about Jesus or what He taught. Actually, this absence of knowledge is an opportunity to casually explain what Jesus actually said about life and what really matters. Who could doubt the wisdom of Jesus when it comes to issues of forgiveness, patience and love above all?
By beginning with the “practical” teachings of Jesus, Christians are better able to lead the discussion to the more difficult teachings of Jesus – and by difficult I mean those teachings that are exclusive to Christianity such as the resurrection and the divinity of Jesus. These teaching are where we usually draw the line. If Jesus is telling the truth about life in His other teachings – and he is – then why would He not be telling the truth about these other matters? Why would Jesus tell us the truth one time and lie to us the next time? Jesus is widely recognized as a wise teacher. If that is so, then why not listen to what He really said about Himself and His mission?
We must do ministry and mission with the confidence of water dripping on a rock, confident that we in the Spirit’s power will one day break through. The citizens of Babel are a jaded bunch. They have seen it all, heard it all, and are not easily impressed by claims that cannot be substantiated with irrefutable proof. Lying is currency of Babel and spinning lies until they blur into the appearance of truth is a national sport. People will not believe until they see living proof.
In the early days of the church, Acts reminds us the preaching of the disciples was validated through healings and other miraculous works. Babel is looking for “living proof” of the gospel’s power. They are eager to hear an authentic message of “I used to be . . . but now I am . . . ” Sure, they will test what they hear, but once tested they will offer the person some measure of respect. No one can argue with the authority of a changed life.
By the way, I finished reading the whole book and there is a great ending. In fact, in one of the last letters of the Bible, the writer of 1 Peter reminds the early church that they used to be nobody, but now they are the people of God. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has restored the ruined foundations of our lives and given us the common language of grace. He called His people back from four corners of the earth and made us one people in His Son and now, we are the messengers He has sent to tell the Good News to Babel.
Mike Glenn is senior pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, TN. His church will host the 2005 National Conference on Preaching.